In a mundane memory that lingers for a reason, Tony Elliott remembers being ornery on a Sunday morning decades ago.
The 9-year-old was testing the patience of his mother, Patricia, refusing to buckle the seatbelt as the family’s Volkswagen Bus rolled toward their church in Anaheim, California. Patricia drove the car, while Elliott’s stepfather sat alongside her in the passenger seat. Next to Elliot in the back of the car were 4-year-old sister, Brandi, and 2-year-old half-brother, Isaiah.
“I didn’t want to go to church,” says Elliott, now the co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach of the top-ranked and undefeated Clemson University football team. “I wanted to stay home and watch cartoons.”
In a flash, television became trivial. A 63-year-old woman ran a red light and plowed into the Volkswagen, causing it to tumble. “I just remember falling toward the front of the car and seeing them dangle upside down,” Elliott says.
Somehow unscathed, Elliott unbuckled his parents’ seatbelts and crawled out of the mangled vehicle. His stepfather’s legs were badly injured, but he was conscious. Elliott’s two siblings in the back were still buckled in and suffered only bumps and bruises.
His mother, who was 22 weeks pregnant, was not as lucky. She had been partially ejected, and the bus rolled over her several times. Gawkers gathered.
“She’s over there halfway out of the car, kind of helpless,” Elliott says.
Tony felt little was being done, so he sprinted away, from the car to the church. His mother needed help. He needed help.
“And that was the kind of the last time …,” Elliott says, his voice trailing off.
Clemson is in the midst of its best football season in more than 30 years. The team has set school records for victories (14) and number of weeks ranked atop national polls (eight), and the school’s first national championship since 1981 is only one win away: Monday, the Tigers will play the University of Alabama for a national title.
In part because of what he experienced that Sunday morning three decades ago, Elliott has been integral to that success. He doesn’t only help craft game plans; he uses the hardships of his past – his mother’s tragic death, his father’s drug addiction and incarcerations, his years spent bouncing around to new homes in unfamiliar cities – to connect with talented college athletes who have dealt with pain and turmoil. Among others, he recruited tailback Wayne Gallman, who last week ran for 150 yards and two scores in the Tigers’ College Football Playoff semifinal victory over the University of Oklahoma and who set Clemson’s single-season rushing record this season.
“This is a guy that really cares about who you are, not so much as a football player – he really cares about your academics first,” says Gallman, whose father, like Elliott’s, has been in and out of his life. “He always checked up on me and how my academics were going in high school. It wasn’t so much football, so that’s what really attracted me to him.” Having already achieved so much by age 36, Elliott aspires for more. This spring, he was selected to attend the Champion Forum, a collaboration among the NCAA’s leadership development department, the five autonomy conferences and the NFL to expose highly regarded minority football coaches to the preparation it takes to become a head college football coach. Having endured so much, Elliott is ready for the next step.
“I’m not defined by my adversity,” Elliott says, “but my adversity is what shapes me into the man that I am.”
After Elliott lost his mother, he bounced from California to Atlanta and back again as his biological father battled arrests and addiction. Eventually, Elliott found stability in Charleston, South Carolina, home to his father’s older sister, Blondell Kidd. Kidd, an elementary school principal for more than 20 years, soon realized that even though her nephew hadn’t been injured, scars from the car accident remained fresh.
“When he first came, he was so upset,” Blondell said. “We would have him say his prayers and tell him, ‘You will be all right. You will be all right.’” For some time, Elliott refused to ride in a car on the highway.
Living in the Kidd household meant abiding by the Kidd rules: Books came before sports. Elliott’s aunt says her nephew relished his new life. “For all hours of the night, he would be studying,” she says. “He excelled. He was just a go-getter.”
Sports also filled the void left by a deceased mother and an absent father. Football, basketball and baseball at James Island High School taught Elliott the value of diligence. “Sports are pretty fair,” he says. “You get what you earn.”
After high school, Elliott found his way to Clemson. Initially, he was too focused on his studies to think about football, but an old high school football rival encouraged Elliott to attend open tryouts. He made the team and, by his second season, earned a scholarship. The wide receiver graduated first-team academic all-Atlantic Coast Conference in 2002 with a degree in industrial engineering.
With a year of eligibility still in hand, Elliott chose to stay at Clemson even though his position coach had taken a job elsewhere. A fiery coach from Alabama, Dabo Swinney, stepped in to lead the Tigers' wide receivers. Elliott, named team captain in that final season, was drawn to the assistant coach’s energy and enthusiasm. Swinney found the same in his pupil.
“From the beginning, I saw a winner,” says Swinney, now in his eighth season as Clemson head coach. “He was committed, mature, an engineer. He had everything you wanted.”
There was a deeper connection that fortified the relationship: Swinney grew up with an alcoholic father. The two soon connected over discussions of absent parents and family dysfunction and succeeding in spite of it all. Years later, at a coaching convention in California, Elliott took his friend to the site of the car crash that claimed his mother’s life.
In 2003, Elliott, engineering degree in hand, was hired by Michelin and sent to the company’s rubber manufacturing facilities in South Carolina. Only 18 months later, Michelin promoted Elliott into its management program, sending him to France and Canada to become a team leader. Despite the promotion and perks, he was unfulfilled. “Ultimately, I wasn’t adhering to my true calling in life, my true purpose,” he says.
He dreaded Monday mornings and couldn’t wait for Friday afternoons. He cared more about his volunteer job coaching wide receivers at a local high school than his day job. His girlfriend Tamika – now his wife – supported a change. So did his former coach.
“He showed up at my office one day when he had a very high-paying engineering job nearby,” Swinney recalls, “and told me he missed football and wanted to get into coaching.”
Swinney offered his encouragement, and soon Elliott was back in football full-time. After two successful seasons as the wide receivers coach at South Carolina State University, Elliott spent three years on Sanford University’s staff. In 2011, Swinney offered Elliott a job over dinner.
That decision has yielded benefits for both men. With Elliott, Clemson prospective and current student-athletes talk books, football, relationships, life – no topic is off limits. Given all he has endured, young men such as Gallman have connected with him. “He’s more of a father figure than a coach,” the redshirt sophomore running back says.
Gallman chuckles when he thinks about the text messages he gets from Elliott – little reminders to focus on the books and the bigger picture; to remember the hardships and the lessons they teach.
“At the end of the day, we are all human beings, and we all need each other,” Elliott says. “I’m here to help you develop and grow. And if there’s anything in my life that I’ve learned from, I’m willing to share with you.”